Saturday, 13 June 2009
The house above is Abbey House, Cambridge. It is the oldest inhabited residential building in Cambridge, and also, reputedly, the most haunted. My brother Murray was involved in restoring it a few years ago and for a few months lived in it. On several occasions he had encounters with some of the house's non corporeal inhabitants, as did all of the members of his building crew. Some heard music playing late at night. Some saw a white woman, a small dog and/or a disembodied head moving eerily around the house. Some had encounters with objects which moved on their own, or lights which turned on and off independently of the switches. Some found it interesting. Many found it very scary indeed. Today Murray showed us around the house, and we saw none of that spooky stuff. We just saw a lovely old building with a somewhat random floor plan and floors and ceilings which are never, but never quite plumb. There is an old bakery and a wonderful six seater long drop toilet. It is all set in a very gracious and very large garden and it is home to a semi monastic Buddhist community.
It was interesting to see Abbey House so soon after visiting the cell of Julian of Norwich. Everyone who visits Mother Julian's cell comments on the spiritual atmosphere of her small room. I have been wondering what it is that makes one place feel holy, and another place feel as though it is full of malevolent presences. Is it a matter of subjective impressions or is there really some sort of independently existing psychic residue left in a place that can be sensed by subsequent visitors? I can appreciate that the physical dimensions and proportions of a building can have a strong emotional impact on people. We went to evensong in the chapel of Kings College Cambridge today, for example, and were bowled over by all that space enclosed in glass and a tracery of stone; the building is designed to do precisely that. But Mother Julian's cell is just a small oblong room with no real distinguishing features. Why should it affect people so?
Some of it is expectation and memory. We expect to be inspired by Julian or to be frightened by Abbey House, so we are. We remember the Revelations of divine Love or the spooky stories and they colour how we perceive the space but this doesn't explain the members of Murray's company who didn't previously know of the house's reputation but nevertheless experienced some wierd things. It doesn't explain one other odd phenomenon. The members of the community who inhabit Abbey House, are, by and large, completely unafraid of the ghosts. There is even some affection for them and a hope that they will find resolutions to whatever conflicts there are which bind them to this old house. As the level of fear surrounding the ghosts has decreased, so has the ghostly activity.
My own opinion is that there can be a sort of psychic imprint left on a place by previous events. In a house as old as Abbey house, the events the house has hosted will be large in number, and some of them will have been traumatic. There has built up, over the years, a sort of shadow connected with these events. Conversely, the tiny room beside St. Julian's church was home to a very strong consciousness who had more than the usual reserves of stillness and of good will towards her fellows. She was a prayerful woman, and after her death many other prayerful people visited that site to sit, and worship and wish their fellows well. The shadow of all this good will and spiritual intention remains as well. The positive (for want of a better word) energy of Mother Julian's cell thus multiplies and grows as people are inspired by it and add to it. It seems that the negative (for want of a better word) energies of Abbey House are frightening to many people, and the fear in turn adds to the shadow which hangs over the place. When there is no fear, and where people are focused on wholeness and purposeful about attaining it, the shadow begins to lighten until (who knows?) it disappears altogether.
In the end, it's impossible to really know the extent to which the responses to these two interesting places are based on some level of objectively real presence which adheres to the places themselves or whether the responses are entirely subjective phenomena located in the minds of the observers. It's unknowable and also perhaps irrelevant beside another great truth which these buildings demonstrate to be true, whether or not the phenomena of these places is entirely subjective or not: it seems that perfect love really does cast out all fear. That in absolute reality... neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38-39)